Just like the weather, things are heating up as the clock ticks down in Rehoboth Beach’s 2020 municipal election – most notably with the printing of an anonymous full-page ad calling out Mayor Paul Kuhns that was placed by one candidate’s husband and then paid for by a former mayor.
Featuring a copy of a letter submitted as part of the public record by former Mayor Sam Cooper, the ad was published in the July 24 edition of the Cape Gazette, and it calls into question the legality of what was contained in the draft ordinance regarding gross floor area after the public hearing had been noticed with a different draft of the same ordinance. The ad said all the commissioners and the city solicitor failed to address the legal issues, but Kuhns, who is up for re-election against former Commissioner Stan Mills, is the only one addressed by name. Ultimately, the public hearing scheduled for July 17 was not conducted.
While there’s no question Cooper wrote the letter, the ad made no mention of who paid for it. When asked who was responsible for the ad, Chris Rausch, Cape Gazette co-publisher and general manager, said commissioner candidate Patrick Gossett’s husband Howard Menaker contacted the paper about placing the ad.
In an email July 27, Gossett did not dispute Menaker contacting the paper, but he said Menaker did not pay for the ad. In an email July 29, Cooper said he paid for the ad after Menaker contacted him July 27 saying the ad needed to be paid for.
Cooper said he wrote the letter to the commissioners out of concern for the cavalier fashion in which the proposed zoning code change was being handled. After the meeting, Cooper said he got a call – not from Gossett or Menaker – asking for permission to use the letter in a paid ad in the Cape Gazette. He said he consented and, being somewhat flattered that folks thought the letter to be significant, he offered to pay for it.
Cooper said he had not given much thought to the ad running anonymously until it was brought to his attention.
“I do not believe that my letter or the ad supports or takes a stand against any particular candidate,” said Cooper. “I hope the conveyed message would be one that all is not well at city hall.”
In a follow-up email July 29, Gossett said he did not place the ad, did not know it was being placed and had not seen it until he read the paper. He said he was unaware of the events leading to Cooper paying for the ad.
“The ad does not have any relationship to my campaign for commissioner or any of the commissioner candidates,” said Gossett.
Kuhns didn’t have much to say on the subject. In an email July 27, he said, as a former mayor, Cooper’s input is welcomed and valued. Kuhns said he believes the fact that the ad was placed anonymously, especially after the letter was part of the public agenda, says a lot about how far some people are willing to go to affect an election.
More than just stirring the election up, the ad appears to have violated state election law. In an email July 29, Bo McDowell, Delaware State Election Commissioner campaign finance manager, said normally, the ad would be considered issue-based advocacy and not be a problem. However, he said, in this case the ad should have contained a “paid for by” attribution because it identifies a specific candidate participating in the election, was published less than 30 days prior to the election and cost more than $500. The ad cost $764.
McDowell could not be reached for additional comment to see if any action would be taken.
Rausch said it is the Cape Gazette’s standing policy that all political advertising contains an indication of who paid for the advertisement.
“It was a mistake on our part that the rule was not enforced with this particular advertisement,” said Rausch. “The policy will remain in place moving forward, and we apologize for any confusion this particular lapse in enforcement may have caused.”
Voting will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 8, in the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center, 229 Rehoboth Ave.
There are six candidates: Kuhns and Mills in the mayoral race, and Gossett, Purple Parrot owner Hugh Fuller, former Commissioner Jay Lagree and planning commission member Rachel Macha in the commissioner race. Sitting Commissioners Lisa Schlosser and Steve Scheffer are not running for re-election.
The deadline to register to vote has passed, but any qualified elector can still request an absentee ballot by filing an absentee ballot form, which is available online, no later than noon, Friday, Aug. 7. The deadline for the city to mail out ballots is Tuesday, Aug. 4. Ballots must be received by mail or in person before the polls close on the day of the election.
For more information, contact Donna Moore at 302-227-6181, Ext. 108, or go to www.cityofrehoboth.com.